When a B is (and isn’t) good enough

Several years ago I was driving back from lunch with my then boss. I noted out loud that sometimes it takes as much energy to get from 0-80% as it does to get to from 80-100%. I asked, “when is 80 or 90% good enough.”

“80% is always good enough.”

I paused. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“Well, almost always. Except for _______. _______ needs to be 100%”

I learned something that day. I watched his mild irritation at the people around him to over-spend their energy on things he didn’t feel needed to be better than 80%. I experienced (as did anybody else who has ever worked with him) his near disdain for when _______ wasn’t good enough.

Your boss has an almost, it’s your job to find it. Your job is to find _______.

You have a finite amount of energy. Your organization has limited resources. You need to decide what it’s okay to get a B on.

Every boss believes two things:

  1. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.
  2. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing okay

I spend 3 years working closely with engineering students, nearly all of them had achieved a 4.0 (or better) high school GPA. They entered physics and calculus and chemistry and learned that Bs get degrees (so do Cs, but it’s harder to keep scholarships with many of those).

Likewise, there are things that it’s okay to get a C on. 

But not everything. 

How do I find out what needs to be right and what just needs to pass? Ask.

If your boss don’t know, then you can ask again this way.

  • If we had to cut the budget from one area, what would you recommend? 
  • Is there any area you’re concerned we’re spending too much time and energy on?
  • From your vantage point, what needs the most work?

Years after that car ride, I noticed that my (new) boss had a shortened attention span for the budget. In the middle of a tightened budget season, I would come to meetings prepared with several options for budget adjustments. He seemed almost disinterested. On the third attempt, I decided that we could get a B on a balanced budget.

While it was possible to get straight As in school, it’s not possible in life.

If you decide in advance what’s okay to pass, you can put more energy into what you need to ace.

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